ahh... Why Shabazz Was Fine As A Palace


Committed readers of mine (lol) will recall my beef with hip hop genre division - or the indefensible lack thereof. The critic prefers to, you know, appeal to categories of shorthand instead of trace gnarled trees of influence when developing context for a song, album, or artist - and this is especially true when you’re doing these things pro bono. Doesn’t really work when you’re talking about rap.

Wikipedia lists Shabazz Palace’s new LP Lese Majesty exclusively as ‘experimental hip hop.’ Do yourself a solid and learn what that’s supposed to mean - click the Wiki link to experimental hip hopLese Majesty finds itself situated alongside the work of De La Soul, Mac Miller, MF Doom, Death Grips, Kid Cudi, Chance the Rapper, the entirety of acid jazz (which I thought was its own genre) and everything Anticon’s ever distributed… these among others who have similar amounts of absolutely nothing in common.

Anyway, whatever the hell experimental hip hop is, it’s not useful enough a genre to include both Lese Majesty and the duo’s game-breaking debut, Black Up - which had elements we ordinarily like to hear in our day-to-day hip hop, like hooks. And drums. Nah, these two albums sound nothing alike.

So I’m gonna go ahead and make it up because the rest of you refuse. Let’s call Lese Majesty ambient hip hop, a genre that until just now contained only two and a half records: a few songs from Serengeti’s SAAL and the two LPs from cLOUDDEAD - the strange five year preamble to Why? you all would know by now if Italian lunatic Piero Scaruffi had succeeded in becoming the number one listmaker OF ALL TIMES. Seriously… go lose yourself in that site for an hour. I’ll be here when you get back. My guess is it’s bigger than Greil Marcus’ inevitable compendium combined with Bob Christgau’s shrieking blue megabase.

There’s good reason ambient hip hop (a.h.h… or A.H.H!!! depending on your mood) is represented by just three and a half records: it’s hard to pull off, and even then it doesn’t sound good. Rap begins at rhythm, a concept even suspect hip hop forebears like the Beats understood when they snapped their fingers to idiot garbage. Jiggering iambs into prefab Eno noise-gas is just about as far from the point you’re allowed to stray before your hip hop is something else altogether.

Which is why ‘experimental hip hop’ fails to capture Lese Majesty. Whatever their tendencies to the avant-garde, prog, derivative underground, or on-your-sleeves jazz, the other acts assembled above produce beatwise music. From the beats we’re given here - sparse, inconsistent, stale, swallowed by synths - one gets the sense Ishmael and Tendai wasted so much time on the soundscaping, they left themselves like a week before debut to bust out the 808.

To be clear, I'm drawing lines between ahh and one of the few hip hop substrates I'm able to mention, trip hop. The point here is Shabazz issues beat subsequent to murky synth jazz. The majority of even the weirdest stuff out of Bristol demonstrated immediate use of the breakbeat, whatever sonic machinations were flitting elsewhere in their songs. Feel free to disagree. Again, I made this shit up.

Anyway, they get it right enough times near the end (“MindGlitch Keytar ™ Theme,” and “Motion Sickness”) to inspire some faith in their continued function as a rap ensemble, but not nearly enough to convince Sub Pop that “the future of hip hop” should be allowed to produce their own crap ever, ever again.  

Lese Majesty is an Anglicanized rip on lèse-majesté - French translating more-or-less as a profane riposte to the throne. I’m guessing that means these two Seattle iconoclasts are taking on non-experimental hip hop broadly, and maybe HOVA and Ye specifically. Noble project, but if proletariat rap is gonna insist on being as formless as the French Revolution, let them have and eat their damn "#CAKE."